Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Beneteau 36s7

Now that the Honcho is back home in its berth in Long Beach, I've had some time to reflect on the boat and how well it performed as a cruising vessel on this voyage. First and foremost I should say that we had a fantastically enjoyable time while we lived aboard the Honcho. We set sail fully aware of the small size of the boat and planned the outfitting, provisioning and sailing route accordingly, and so got along very well aboard the Honcho throughout the voyage. Still, it would be valuable to anyone who is planning such a voyage as ours to consider some of the lessons we learned along the way. So I'll begin with the design and construction of the boat, then the outfitting and provisioning, and finally the sailing of the Honcho.

The Beneteau First 36s7 is designed as a racer/cruiser, with the emphasis more on cruising than racing. This results in a moderately lightweight boat that performs well enough under sail to make the sailing fun. It’s also important to be able to sail your way out of trouble, especially upwind, so you don’t have to rely on the motor if the weather turns nasty. The Honcho performed well whenever called on for such duty.

After living aboard the Honcho for nearly a year, I’ve had ample time to ponder her accommodations. I guess the fact that we never felt the desire to change anything speaks for the basic accommodations plan. We really like the large drop-leaf table in the salon, with its built-in wine storage, and the auxiliary wine locker over the port settee. One thing I would have changed if we had spent the summer in the Sea is the hot water heater plumbing. It uses engine cooling water to heat the freshwater. That’s good most of the time.  But the heater is located under the quarterberth and when it’s blazing hot out and the water temperature is over eighty degrees, it makes for a very warm berth. If I had it to do over, I’d rig a bypass line, so that I can bypass the heater when I want to.
The Honcho on the hard, getting an epoxy barrier coat

Given the size of the boat, the galley worked really well. I built a cutting board to fit over one of the sinks to expand the counter space, which is always in short supply on a small boat. The galley is equipped with a two burner stove, which is adequate for the cooking we did. When we stayed in marinas we dined out regularly, but it was almost always easy to find plenty of high quality fresh food in the local markets or big-box stores. Costco was our favorite of the big stores, though it was more  fun to visit the smaller stores and bargain for fresh picked fruits and vegetables.

We would have preferred a built-in freezer, but that’s not practical on a boat this size. The little freezer compartment in the icebox could be relied on to make two trays of crystal clear ice cubes, and that was enough for four tall cold drinks everyday regardless of the temperature outside.

One improvement we would have liked was a bigger cockpit. There is ample room to have designed a longer, wider cockpit with an open or step-through transom. As built, it was fine for a crew of two, but it gets tight with four or more. On the other hand, the transom extension was an invaluable addition.

When cruising as we did in Mexico, you’ll spend about 85 percent of the time at anchor or in a marina. Over a span of about nine months, we sailed a total of just over 5,000 miles. At an average of 5.5 knots, that works out to about 38 sailing days out of 270. Pretty good for a 36-foot boat. We would like to have gone further during the voyage, and would have if we could have gone faster. We missed some interesting places in the Sea of Cortez because we ran out of time. Of course we could have spent more days sailing, but we always enjoyed being where we were. So the lesson we learned is that in the future we would like to have a faster boat, which translates directly to a longer boat.

Cruising in Mexico involves a lot of sailing dead upwind or dead downwind. The Honcho is a pretty good upwind boat, but most of the time when our destination was upwind, we motor-sailed. Having raced thousands of upwind miles I had always thought that cruising sailors were a bit on the wimpy side for motoring when they could sail. However, it’s much quicker and more comfortable to motor-sail a hundred miles upwind than to spend thirty hours heeled thirty degrees in a twenty-knot headwind.  So the lesson here, for us at least, is that our next boat will be one that motors well and has plenty of fuel capacity. The Honcho has a nice three bladed feathering prop that proved itself many times, especially on the long bash up the Baja coast. Our 24-gallon fuel tank, adequate for local cruising was not enough for the longer passages we made, or for cruising in the Sea of Cortez where fuel docks are few and far between. We usually carried two 5-gallon jerry jugs of diesel on deck, and added four more for the passage between Cabo San Lucas and Ensenada.

Mexico has to be one of the world’s great cruising grounds, with literally hundreds of beautiful, remote anchorages in addition to many fine marinas. We always preferred to anchor whenever we could, and stayed in marinas only when there was a compelling reason to do so. Two things make riding at anchor a pleasure or a trial. Your ground tackle, and how the boat rides at anchor. I prefer to have big anchors and all chain rodes, so I fitted the Honcho with a 35lb Manson Supreme and 120 feet of quarter inch high-test chain. For backup, we had two Danforths of 22 and 12 pounds, with a 20’ chain and 150’ nylon rode. We also took another 150’ foot nylon rode for just in case. I’ve read the Internet arguments about the Manson vs. Rocna and the other brands…That’s mostly just wind in the rigging. But there is no doubt in my mind that the basic design of the Manson/Rocna type is superior to the plow and fluke type anchors. Ours never dragged, always popped free when we wanted it to and never gave us any trouble.

As for how the boat rides at anchor, the hullform of the Honcho, rather full in the ends and relatively light displacement, meant that it had a tendency to sail around quite a bit while on the hook. We didn’t over-burden the boat with a lot of extra stuff on deck so it didn’t roll much though, and I’ll take the sailing over rolling any day. With a chain rode, it was always prudent to rig a nylon snubber to keep the boat from being jerked as the chain went taut in windy conditions. I usually rigged a double snubber about 10’-15’ long led to the port and starboard bow cleats. This arrangement helped to dampen the yawing as the boat sailed around the chain, but a narrower, heavier boat would certainly have ridden to the anchor better.
The honcho at Catalina a week before departing for Mexico

The Honcho’s rig is a fractional sloop. When we bought it, the boat had a roller furling jib and lazy jacks on the mainsail. The main on this boat is quite big, and set up with slab reefing. In heavy air, it was easy to reef and we did so quite often. The boat sails well under main alone with the apparent wind at 40 degrees or more and we often sailed that way. Before we left, I took the roller furler off the boat. It was worn out and I thought it would be just as well to just hank the jib on the headstay. That way it would be easy to shift gears from the big jib to the little one. This system worked well, but it was labor intensive to set, douse and stow the jibs. Hanks are foolproof and furlers are not. But I found myself on the foredeck wrestling a jib more often than I would have liked, so in spite of the efficiency and safety of the hanks, our next boat will be fitted with a roller-furling jib.

As for safety gear, we took plenty of it and wore self-inflating life vests at night and whenever it was rough out. We carried a MOM and a LifeSling and thankfully never had to use them. Our jacklines were polyester webbing led to heavy-duty padeyes on deck. We carried a Switlick Rescue Pod instead of a full-fledged liferaft. It was a good compromise given that we were only going down the coast and not crossing any oceans.
No one should leave without a good EPIRB with integral GPS. We used an ACR Globalfix.

Wherever cruisers gather, the conversation eventually turns to communications and navigation equipment. Some argue that with Sat-phones, there is no need for a single sideband radio. I’m not convinced. We used our SSB regularly for weather reports and forecasts as well as to talk with friends who were hundreds of miles away, for free. We liked to get away and were always glad to find a hidden anchorage with no other boats around. But it was also nice to know that we could get in touch with someone almost instantly with the SSB. Could the same be done with a Sat-phone? Possibly, but I liked the ability to broadcast when I wanted to, while the phone only enables you to call a certain phone number.

We did not carry AIS or Radar. The AIS is a great piece of equipment and we won’t leave home again without one. There were times when Radar would have been handy. The Mexican coast has plenty of fog and more than once we waited for fog to lift a bit before entering a bay or anchorage. The newest models use less energy than before and we’ll install one on our next boat.

Finally, the sailing: We always enjoyed sailing the Honcho. She handled well in all the conditions we encountered, giving a good turn of speed reaching and running, and always well balanced and easy to steer. With her wide stern, I first thought the rudder would be too short to give good control when the boat heeled under sail, and I thought I might add some depth to it. But time ran out as we prepared to leave and I never got around to it. It was just as well because it proved to be just fine as is. We used the autopilot a lot and it worked flawlessly the entire trip. In my opinion it’s a good idea to get one that’s rated for a bigger boat than you have, and ours never strained or complained. Upwind in light conditions, I could skip the autopilot and just lock the wheel and the boat would sail along for miles with nothing more than occasional attention to the traveler in the puffs and lulls.

Before we left I went through the boat from keel to masthead, and made sure she was ready in all respects for the conditions and adventures we expected to encounter. Good materials and workmanship served us very well throughout the trip. We never had a serious breakdown and spent virtually no time on repairs except for routine maintenance and, once, a corroded connection at the windlass. That left us free to enjoy the wonders of Mexico, and share a leisurely and mostly carefree voyage along the coast and in the beautiful Sea of Cortez. I’m pleased to report that the Honcho arrived home after a voyage of some 5,000 miles in excellent condition, as did we.

When planning this trip, we decided to find a smallish boat that would be capable of handling the voyage we were contemplating with a minimum financial investment, yet still provide the comfort and safety we desired, and the Honcho filled that requirement beautifully.